Novel Update


I’m posting a little bit of a different format today because I want to share some exciting updates on my upcoming novel, Wake of the Phoenix. Over the past few months I’ve been going through the process of preparing my book for publication and I have hit several milestones.

  1. Edits are complete. This is a huge milestone. Some self-published authors make edits even after they’ve released a version of their novel and every author releases their book and then wishes they could make one last change. Despite those constant insecurities, my editing is complete. This is not to say that no changes will be made to any of the content between now and my release date. After receiving my professional edits back, applying the changes, and calling my manuscript “done but for the formatting,” the first thing I did was see it in a different format and find typos. There will no doubt be more typos. Nonetheless, this does mean that all substantive changes to the novel have been made.
  2. Maps are finalized for first book status. The maps released a couple weeks ago are now confirmed as the final maps depicting the status of this world at the beginning of Wake of the Phoenix. These maps were created on Inkarnate using their premium subscription. I initially made sketches on the free version and figured those would be okay, but I do have to plug the premium version now. Aside from more complexity, it allows you to make more traditional styles of internal maps and I greatly enjoyed playing with the expanded tools and stamp options. Those maps will be present in the opening pages of my novel, but they can also be used as reference material for events recorded in the fiction posts on my blog.
  3. Interior formatting is in its final stages. This is exciting news, in no small part because I have spent years working at a legal publishing company where my job was to skim PDF documents of official court cases looking for formatting errors. These included everything from weird hyphenations to misspelled words to backwards quote marks. It has been a genuinely surreal experience applying those same skills to making my own book look professional and complete.
  4. Cover design has progressed from concept into detailing. Many authors walk into their books with a concept of their cover art or with an image that represents the story to them. I’ve never been that person. As a result, gathering visual ideas and trying to craft those into something to represent the book I worked so hard on was a daunting task. Thankfully, I had a skilled cover artist who sketched a rough concept in 20 minutes on the phone with me. While the initial concept was exciting, he has had two weeks to work on building that concept into a solid cover design and I am expecting a second draft in the next day or two. From there I will discuss any concerns and suggest and specific changes and wait for the final draft, in 1-2 weeks. I can’t wait to share the result with everyone. I’ll be revealing my final cover in early July both here and on Twitter. Keep an eye out. I’m pretty excited by my artist’s work.
  5. Advance Review Copies will be available to request in 2-3 weeks. I’ve been saying for some time that my book, Wake of the Phoenix, will be released this fall. That means it’s time for ARC readers! I’m still waiting on my cover to send any copies, but I’ll begin collecting information for anyone interested in a free copy of my novel soon. I hope to be able to send e-book ARCs starting in early to mid July and physical ARCs by the first week of August. Keep an eye out here and on Twitter for a form to request an ARC if you’re interested. My only request is that if you accept an ARC you write me an honest review on Amazon. I am a firm believer that truth brings the right readers and unreasonably inflated ratings just piss people off.
  6. A release date has been selected. This is a bit of a funny announcement, since I’ve been saying my book is coming out “this fall” for months. As well, anyone who has ever self-published knows that you pick a release date much earlier than this. The exciting news here is that my plans are coming together, my tasks are getting completed, and the book is ready. This means that my release date (which will be announced when I reveal the cover in a couple weeks), will be the same one I’ve been targeting for several months now.

Here’s a couple sneak peaks of formatted pages from the book:

The Life of the Magic

By now, most fantasy writers have heard someone tell them about the importance of unique world building. Think of your world like its own character, the advice typically starts. Make it dynamic and have the world engage with the story in its own way. But what about the magic of that world? Is that just a wart on your world-character’s face? I’d argue that, for most fantasy, the magic system is more of a character than the world itself. Magic systems tend to have quirks and limitations, and most have some form of choosing who is better or worse at using them than others.

The thing that sets magic systems apart from other pieces of story creation is that we have tools for world building, for character creation, and for fleshing out characters. We even have tools for structuring and planning a plot (and some of us choose to use those tools to evaluate and edit rather than pre-plan). But we almost never talk about magic systems in this same way. Magic systems are often treated as either a mystical, unexplained pseudo-science that stands in for technology or as a flavor text that serves more as window dressing than a central piece of the story. And yet every fantasy author can pick out the magic system that captivates them years after they’ve finished reading the books. So what makes those systems so unique?

The is a question that many authors have tried to answer, and typically the answers come down the the author in question describing what their readers seems to like about their own magic systems. These answers range from Sanderson’s “A magic system is only as interesting as its limitations” response to several people who point to the sense of wonder in magic systems that create an entirely different world (think Harry Potter) and all sorts of other responses. This was a question I had rarely considered, accepting Brandon Sanderson’s commentary at face value, until I attended a workshop on magic systems at Pikes Peak Writer’s Conference in April.

That workshop was taught by C.R. Rowanson, who is a magic system enthusiast and the author of Restrictions May Apply: Building Limits for Your Magic System, a workbook dedicated to helping fantasy authors create limitations for their magic systems. In his talk, he provided two sliding scales of magic system attributes that combine into four essential types of magic with varying levels of each element. The two scales are hard magic vs. soft magic (one many of us are familiar with) and rational magic vs. irrational magic. C.R. Rowanson has a great explanation of these elements and I highly recommend anyone interested in this look up his upcoming nonfiction book on magic systems. A rough definition of his terms is that hard vs. soft magic refers to how much the audience understands about the magic while rational vs. irrational refers to how much internal logic the magic system employs (i.e., do the individual elements seem to be based on each other).

I’m going to talk about this topic in a slightly different context than C.R. Rowanson does. He focuses on explaining the characteristics which cause a magic system to have certain effects with a goal of helping writers build better magic systems. I want to talk about choosing the effect you want your magic system to have and evaluating how those effects change the type of story you’re telling.

Impact of the Magic

First, let’s talk about the impact of magic on your world and your story. There’s a lot of ways people use magic. Above I listed three: a substitute for technology in a low-tech society, a pure window dressing that rarely effects the plotline, and as a way to add fantastical elements in an effort to create a sense of wonder for the reader. Other authors use magic as a central plot element, often focusing on one or more characters learning how to master their magic in one way or another. Let’s list out a few uses of magic and discuss the effects we’re trying to create with each.

  • Magic is a tool for solving problems. This often fits into my definition of “magic as science.” Typically there are extremely strict rules to the magic system, typically the reader knows those rules, and most of the time those rules relate to each other. A lot of the thrill of these magic systems is the reader guessing how the system might be used within its strict rules to solve a problem which does not, at first, appear vulnerable to that magic. I describe these as “magic as science” because in many of these stories the magic might as well be electromagnetism. The lay-person doesn’t understand how electromagnetism works, but the rules are strict and we use it on a daily basis to create the society we understand today.
  • Magic is a source of problems. This one can go two ways. For option one, we go the same route as above (magic as science) but someone is using said “science” in an evil way or the “machine” has broken and is endangering the world. The danger comes from the characters needing to work against rules they’ve been taught to follow. Option two is actually my favorite for problem-magics: wild magic that no one fully understands. This one needs to be vague to the reader but have enough clear elements that the resolution feels believable. Unlike option one, the threat comes from the character’s needing to figure out what the problem even is, turning the story into a bit of a mystery.
  • Magic is a set piece, adding flavor to the story. This one almost has to be vague. If there is clearly defined magic in your world, then your readers are going to suggest ways to solve problems using that magic and if the characters don’t try they are going to look stupid. The primary exception is if you have a well-defined but very, very weak magic system and never put the characters in a place where that magic can be useful. If all the characters can do is conjure a cup of clean drinking water once per minute and they are never without fresh drinking water then the magic is a set piece. A kind of boring set piece, in my mind, but different readers enjoy different things. With a vague system, though, you can drop interesting bits into the world that never directly change the direction of the plot but build a certain feel for the world… Although now I’m wondering what interesting societal differences there would be in a world that is essentially mundane but never has to worry about clean drinking water. For every rule there’s an exception, after all.
  • Magic is a creator of societal hierarchies. This one is actually rather popular. It’s not that my world has a strict caste system based on arbitrary characteristics, it’s just that the people magic tends to choose are elevated to higher status. My conflict is all about how this lower-caste person is found to have magic and my society has to re-evaluate itself! While the setup here does feel a little cheap to me, it’s also pretty realistic (at least to one way of considering the potential outcomes of magic existing). Most of these stories are “this could be you” stories, which gives us two main types. Wish fulfillment stories where the magic is presented as cool and exciting, or warning stories where the magic caste is found to be terribly corrupt and the magic itself is often addictive or prone to leading people astray.
  • Magic is so prevalent as to create a completely different world. I’m defining this one a bit overly-specifically because any of the other options can have magic that is so pervasive as to completely change the world from what we know. The point with this item on the list, though, is to look at stories where the entire point of using magic is to change the world substantially from what we know. Most historical fantasy falls into this category because a lot of the stories do less looking at magic’s effects on other elements and a lot more looking at how magic would change a specific historical event or time period. The thrill of this magic system is seeing how similar things might be with fantastical elements mixed in while delighting in the changes. Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books, for example, have flying contraptions that people use for war because, with dragons, why wouldn’t that be a thing? But a lot of the rest of the world is still very similar. That dichotomy is interesting to fans of these types of magic systems. It’s particularly interesting that both historical fantasy books and many high-magic epic fantasy books fit into the same category here. With high-magic epics we’re seeing a completely re-imagined concept of what a magic world might be, where with historical fiction we’re seeing the result of one minor change. But in both the magic functions to create a sense of fascination with the magic while often not relying directly on the magic as a problem solver or creator.

Now, this list makes no attempt to be comprehensive. The goal is to look at a few categories of magic usage and discuss the effects the writer is trying to create. Every piece of magic we include in our work needs to have a purpose, but like our characters and our plot elements, that purpose can vary. No one would ever say that you can’t have side characters that simply flesh out the world without adding to the plot. We often recommend that authors add insignificant details about their world to give depth to the society. And yet we treat magic, with all its complexities and quirks, as nothing more than a tool for our manipulation.

Treat your world like a character? Sure, if it fits. A dynamic world with complex effects is great. But your magic should live, and it should breathe life into the things it touches.


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Calling


Kìlashà snapped awake from the Dream, heart pounding as the images played through his mind. Another death, this one slower and harsher—bloodier than the last. Each vision came with the same face, not always present but always a part of the slaughter. The golden blond hair that had marked a long-dead prince framed a far crueler face, etched as though from a stone gone mad with bloodlust. A face he knew and yet could barely recall.

With a shudder, he pushed back the hides that served him as bed coverings and rose, the cold stone of his home a solid comfort against his visions. The sparse decor of a table, a rough bench, and a discarded wooden rack for drying hid beneath the evening’s cloud-darkened skies. But Kìlashà had no need of light to see these surroundings. He strode across the space, a flash of warning from his power warning him in time to sidestep the pile of wood his clanmother had left by his door after he’d fallen asleep. The darkened camp beyond his doorway still held a few flickers of campfires, twinkling up from the base of the cliff as he peered over the edge of his own narrow path. Sentries waiting for the next shift. No one dared sleep without guards while war raged in distant lands.

“Good eve, Kìlashà.” His clanmother’s voice sang like water tumbling over rocks, her bluish skin shimmering in the darkness. “I thought you retired for your rest.”

“Dreams.”

He couldn’t bring himself to explain further, but she would understand. As the kin he’d known as a babe could not. His clanmother stepped closer, her skin too bright for comfort though her colors shifted to mimic the rustling waves of a restless sea. Her worry showing through in her skin.

“The seeker’s power will yield to your will in time,” she said. “All our people struggle to master their talents, and yours are more demanding than most.”

Kìlashà shrugged. “I do not fear—” She would know the lie. No reason to mislead the one who had cared for him when no other would. “Such fears are not what takes my rest from me. I feel a duty to see my visions answered.”

She laughed, the sound somehow deeper and more grating than her usual voice. A glance showed her skin had changed again, lightening to a sky blue as she shook her head in amusement. Not understanding what he’d said, no doubt. She always believed their powers nothing more than a tool when he could feel the deeper pull behind the information gleaned.

“Lasha, my child.” She laid a hand on his shoulder, gesturing to their sacred prayer house. “The Ancient Spirits grant you skill and allow you to glimpse Their wisdom. They do not make requests. There is nothing to answer.”

“You have not seen the moments in my Dreams,” he insisted. “They do not come to the others of our clan. Why to me, if I am of the clans? There is a need for my actions among the western lands.”

“No, Kìlashà.” Her hand clenched on his shoulder, though she kept her voice calm. “Those creatures have earned nothing from you and shall have none of my child.”

“You cannot be the one to decide.” He spoke the words with a conviction beyond his own knowledge, certain as he did that he could only cause her pain. But deception served no purpose here. “I am marked by the Ancient Spirits. We must follow Their will, not our own.”

“Their will brought you to me.”

But not for this purpose. He couldn’t explain how he knew what the Ancient Spirits intended, but the confidence rang in his very being. His clanmother sought to protect him from the very destiny she had insisted was his. But no value came from disabusing her of such beliefs at this time.

“Of course, clanmother.”

Kìlashà stepped away from her, examining the patterns of the fires below. Two fires by the western edge, where barely a fortnight past they had only maintained one. Another skirmish close to the borders of clan lands? Or had the council simply added guards to ease some of the restless tension suffered by the younger members of the clans. Hunting restrictions and travel limitations. Every week a new caution and smaller area to range and learn and train. Not as it had been when Kìlashà was still a child. Before the northern humans had rebelled over a murder more than a decade old and sworn vengeance for a crime they didn’t understand.

With a sharp twist of his vision, Kìlashà’s power flared to life and dragged him into a full fledged vision. An alternate moment of time similar to the flashes that had permeated his childhood, but this one stronger. He could barely hear his clanmother’s shout of alarm as he lost himself the the new moment before him.

Kìlashà lay back on the branch, watching the empty woods beneath him in casual disinterest. The spirits called him here, but They had not bothered to reveal their purpose. He’d learned by now to trust in Their will and so he waited, one leg dangling beneath him as though he were a child playing. A rustle of branches echoed through the forest sounds, cutting the bird songs short and sending the foraging rabbit ducking into a nearby thicket. Kìlashà examined the ground below for signs of the intruder, finally noting the branches of a bush the swayed ever so slightly against the breeze.

Not entirely inept at maneuvering, he noted. But clearly this intruder had no close knowledge of these lands and his inexperience left him announcing his presence to any who had lived and loved this forest. And Kìlashà knew this intruder was male, young, and important to the Ancient Spirits. This was why They had sent him to this mome—

“Kìlashà!”

His clanmother’s sharp voice cut through the vision, dragging him back tot he current moment. Darkness closed over him and for just an instant he was blind, deaf—he couldn’t breathe. Then everything returned at once, like a wave crashing down upon him, searing his eyes with the dim light from his clanmother’s skin as her worried face floated before him.

“Lasha, what happened? Are you injured?”

He shook his head, more the clear his thoughts than to answer, and pushed away from the cliff wall where he’s fallen.

“I am well, clanmother. I was simply unprepared. My visions are not usually so forceful.”

Or so unexpected. He’d rarely had an uncalled vision sine he’d come to live among the clans, and never one so strong and clear. Not even as a child, when his visions had led him from his bed and into the safety of the clans.

“That was not a seeker’s vision, child,” his clanmother said, her voice still heavy with worry. “The Ancient Spirits grant access to knowledge. They do not drag our people into visions unasked for. Think of the danger. A seeker unprepared could get lost in such a vision.”

“But…” He looked up into her eyes, paled to a seaweed green from their usual emerald. “The Spirits have always spoken to me thus.”

She shook her head, skin paling further into a barely blue-tinted haze as she considered the import of his words. Kìlashà frowned, considering the images again. She would like what They’d said even less.

“Perhaps you misunderstood.” She sounded as desperate to convince herself as to explain to him. “Many born of the clans use their skills without knowing. In dreams and when desperate. You’ve been worried. You just said your visions have invaded your dreams again.”

He turned away, looking to the est as if he could find the forest branch where his older self had sat. Not much older. Two, maybe three years. But he’d known the lay of that land as he knew the land beneath his feet here. A home he’d built for himself.

“The Spirits have ever spoken to me thus,” Kìlashà said. “And They have given me a task to see done.”

“Lasha, you can’t follow a single vision,” his clanmother cautioned. “You know the dangers of an unconfirmed moment. Any number of factors could lead to the moment you saw.”

“But some things must be done to achieve Their ends,” he replied. Kìlashà smiled at her, his reluctance to leave tugging at the need to follow his visions. “I know your frustration, clanmother. But these are the same as the visions which led me to you. The Spirits have a design for me and it lies to the west.”

“You’re twisting the vision to suit your own ends,” she said. “Seeing a solution to your nightmares and your vision at once. Lasha, you must bring this to the council.”

Kìlashà nodded. “Yes, the council should convene. I’ll need to explain my intentions.”

He slipped past her and hurried down the path. The council should still be in session. They’d met until long past moon-set for weeks now, everyone fearing for the safety of their clan. A safety he could now provide. His clanmother’s steps on the path behind him came too fast. Not following, but hurrying to catch him before he could say his piece to the other leaders of his clan. Kìlashà paused at the bottom of the path to wait.

“What do you plan to tell them, Lasha?”

“A simple truth.” He met her eyes, his voice steady despite her frantically shifting colors. “Our people need a guardian. Someone to serve as a buffer between the clans and this human conflict. We need this guardian to be someone unable to reveal our people simply from a glimpse through the trees, lest a human wander into view. Only one among us can handle such a task.”

Kìlashà held up a hand, the mix of tan and pink a sharp contrast to his clanmother’s bluish tones. Too much shade to be born of the air, too little to be born of the earth, and none of his clanmother’s watery coloring. Human-born.

“But you’ll be alone.”

As alone as she had been before the Spirits had sent Kìlashà to her. He could read the sorrow as clearly as any of the languages he had studied under her tutelage. But it could not change the will he’d seen in the Ancient Spirit’s plan.

“I am not leaving, clanmother. Only taking the invitation to educate myself.”

And perhaps, living at the edge of the people who had birthed his body, Kìlashà might learn what the Ancient Spirits had intended by cursing his soul to live in such a frail incarnation.


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All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

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All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

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Map Madness

Thanks for everyone taking a look at the blog today. My goal is to release a new post every Tuesday morning but unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, I am not able to get a full post out today. Instead, I’d like to share two preliminary maps with everyone while I take the next week to prepare my story for release.

With no further delay, here are a couple locations within the setting of my upcoming debut novel, Wake of the Phoenix.

All of the original fiction released so far on my blog, Tales of the Laisian Empire, are set in Myiratas. Many of these stories take place in or relate to Sentar Province, a province contained with the Laisian Empire. The capital city of Sentar Province is Torsdell, marked on the map just above the central mountain range. Here’s a preliminary map of Torsdell, where the main action of Wake of the Phoenix takes place.

Some of the items marked here relate specifically to events in book one, as this map is intended for inclusion in the opening pages.

Thanks for your patience while I finish my next post, and check back regularly for updates on Wake of the Phoenix!

Gifts and Gambits


“There.” With a final tug, Prillani Kitorn settled the hem of her new gown around her waist and twisted to see the effect in the mirror.

The bodice of the dress clung to her skin, dipping lower on her chest than anyone without a crown would dare reveal as the ruby skirt swirled around her hips. The silhouette had a far more muted flare than was traditionally popular, accentuating the height that put her at eye level with many men and taller than most women. A minor scandal if she wore this on her southern visit. A perverse desire made her grin. Southern men liked their women short, prudish, and brainless, or so all evidence implied. They’d hate to see Prillani in this.

A cursory rap at her door announced the arrival of her father, King Aran Bira. Her father stepped inside without waiting for her invitation, muttering under his breath at the wealthy merchant who matched his steps. Their conversation cut short as Prillani dropped into a curtsy.

“Gods above, child.” Her father turned away from her in shock, his pale skin flushing with embarrassment. “Put a proper chemise under that.”

“It wouldn’t fit—” Her reply was lost in the merchant’s laughter.

“Your majesty, it’s intended to show as much,” the merchant said. “A beautiful creature like your daughter here? It would be a crime to hide that richly colored skin beneath a chemise and formal gown. This color truly shines against her complexion as it would not on your true-born child.”

Prillani’s mirth faded at the comment. Not as dismissive as some of her father’s courtiers, but still a heavy dose of condescension. She wasn’t a person so much as an exotic display for his wares, complete with unusual skin tone to better highlight certain colors. Prillani rose from her curtsy and crossed the room to join them as her father scowled.

“My daughter is not a creature,” he snapped. “And you’d better placate her or your wares can find another complexion to match and another purse to milk.”

“Pardon, please I meant no insult.” The merchant’s words tumbled over each other. He scanned the room as if looking for an explanation, finding nothing but the tightly shuttered windows and heavily draped walls of Prillani’s dressing chambers. “I’d no intention of taking coin for this gown. It was sent as a gift from my patron. He hoped your majesty might honor him by receiving his envoy.”

“Your patron is who?” Prillani smiled at the merchant, letting her own irritation simmer in her words. “We’ll need to check his ancestry. The royal family of Osuvia can hardly host any random commoner as an envoy, however wealthy.”

“Oh course, your highness,” the merchant said. “I’m afraid I cannot give you his heritage, only that my patron comes from old blood in Sernyii. With recent events, he fears to reveal too much to the wrong ears.”

She scoffed at the claim. “Another descended from old Sernyii? Of course he is. Take your claim elsewhere. I’m sure a man as well-versed in genocide as the late imperial high emperor could properly exterminate the noble bloodlines from his enemies.”

“The royal family graciously accepts your patron’s gift, however,” her father added. “Now that I’ve adjusted, I do like the cut of that gown on my daughter.”

The merchant hesitated, glancing from father to daughter and back. “I throw myself on your mercies, your majesty. Your highness. Allow me to explain.”

He prostrated himself on the floor, hands shaking in a way Prillani had rarely seen. Only a few times, when a brutal punishment was needed to keep the peace and the prisoner stood before the block. What could terrify the man so much? Another reason to reject this patron. Anyone who scared his own servants this deeply could only be dangerous for her family.

“What more could you have to say?” her father demanded. “Your patron claims a bloodline none can prove in a country that no longer lives. Whatever influence he thinks he might gain here, he offers no value to our court.”

Prillani waved a hand to silence the merchant before he could reply. Turning to her father she whispered in the northern dialect of her father’s birth. Unknown beyond their borders, it ought to give them a moment of privacy even without expelling the merchant.

“If we recognize Sernyii, it may put a buffer between the empire and our mountains.”

“The kingdom surrendered long before the war ended,” her father replied. “What claim would we have? A stranger’s word means nothing without a story and the power to spread it.”

“Rumors say the surrender was coerced,” she replied. “And none doubt the conflict started over blood thirst and not vengeance. What harm in crowning a false king beholden to our nation?”

Her father bit at his lower lip, considering her words. There was harm in crowning a false king, of course. Osuvia’s nobility spent most of its time protecting the bloodlines of the older families from the contamination of a single-term ruler. A ruler who didn’t understand the pressures of power could easily tear carefully crafted negotiations apart. Still, her father had recently embraced the heart of their own long-standing tradition to appoint each new ruler from a new family line. After years of trading favors between the fine houses, his succession would be the first to place an adopted commoner on the throne. If he could prove the concept was viable by supporting a foreign ruler, it would ease her adopted sister’s transition to the throne.

“We cannot accept your patron’s envoy here,” her father said, turning back to the merchant as his dialect transitioned back to the main tongue. “Not until his heritage and claims can be verified. But perhaps a meeting can be arranged on neutral ground. My daughter travels south to discuss our trade routes in the imperial province of Sentar this fall. As your patron claims to be of Sernyii, he surely knows his way around the lands she’ll travel through.”

“Indeed he does.” The merchant sagged against the tiled floor, his relief a tangible thing. He cast a smile up at them. “And as your majesty said a neutral location would suit better, I can offer for my patron to speak with your esteemed daughter in Sentar Province. He holds a refuge there, as the local high lord has some sympathies for the Sernyii homeland.”

“Very well.” Her father gestured to the door. “My steward will arrange the details.”

The merchant retreated out the door, bowing over and over as he backed away. Clearly he had no real knowledge of a royal court, but for all his blunders he might be useful after all. Prillani walked over to her dressing table, picking through the jewels she’d laid out. This dress needed a very specific set of accessories to focus the eyes in the right place. No diplomacy ever survived a lecherous man staring at her breasts. She selected a tight choker with an exquisite emerald set into the front and turned back to her father.

“Do you think the new high lord of Sentar will like this?”

Her father frowned. “You’ll stay away from the new high lord down there. I’ve heard plenty of rumors about his interests.”

“Father.” She chuckled. “You can’t think I’d fall prey to any of his entreaties. We worked too hard to find me a husband who wouldn’t treat me as a trophy. No tumble, how ever experienced the man, is worth losing that.”

She suspected the rumors held more speculation than truth, anyway. There were other, older rumors about the new high lord of Sentar Province. Rumors no one liked to talk about because the newer ones held so much more scandal. Supposedly, he single handedly revitalized the rebellion against the Laisian Empire’s brutal high emperor. He may have even killed the emperor himself in retribution for the atrocities the empire had suffered. She had trouble reconciling the principled, driven warrior with the careless womanizer who cast off his conquests as soon as he’d finished his own pleasures. One of the stories had to be false. Much easier for a war hero to fake promiscuity than a fop to pretend war prowess.

“I don’t trust him, Pri,” her father replied. “There’s something off about him. You know the history he’s supposed to have. If he wanted those rumors quelled they would be, so what benefit is he getting from looking weak? And why do I hear so much about the army he’s building?”

“We won’t know until we approach him.” She set the choker back down, fiddling with the clasp. Maybe another. She couldn’t get out of that one easily, and if this new high lord was dangerous she couldn’t afford anything he might use as a weapon. “I’m going to wear this dress to his palace.”

“You’re begging for a diplomatic incident, aren’t you?” But he laughed. “As chaste as they expect their women, what respect will they show you in that? You’re there for diplomacy.”

“Imperials aren’t going to listen to me,” Prillani said. The bitterness sat in her throat, unvoiced. But she knew he’d understand. “I’m not only female, I’m visibly foreign. Of the sort they actively tried to expel a decade ago. Send the steward for the standard trade deals. He’ll manage as well as I. But the high lord—”

“I don’t want you getting too close to him.”

“I don’t mean that.” She waved at the dress. “The merchant said his patron has a house in Sentar because of the high lord’s sympathies. I’ve heard a dozen things about the high lord’s time in the war, but betraying his current emperor? That’s something we should investigate. And if I alienate the other nobles, I’ll have time to meet this patron and evaluate if the high lord is really an ally in my plans for Sernyii.”

Her father paced away, to the door and back, his lips set in a grim line. Finally, he turned back with a sigh.

“All right,” he said. “I’ll authorize one negotiation with the high lord, but only if you have evidence and surety of his support against any future aggressions of his homeland. Make it a military resource, so he has to commit to helping us.”

“Perfect.” And she knew exactly what resource to ask about. One that would test his knowledge of Sernyii’s resources and his loyalty to his homeland all in one.


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The Best Pitch

Every writer who considers traditional publishing at some point stops to wonder how to pitch their novel to an agent or editor. It’s one of the most commonly asked questions in all writing communities I’ve been a part of, and it is the one workshop you can guarantee will be available at least once at just about every writing conference. I’m going to use this space to collect the most useful advice that was shared at the conference I recently attended. I personally have pitched several times and have spent a lot of time talking to various editors and agents, so feel free to drop any questions below and I’ll answer them as best I can.

A quick note before I get started: Many people think they want to pitch to an editor instead of an agent or question why they might want an agent at all. The short answer is that many larger traditional publishers will require you to have an agent in order to work with them, and even if the publisher doesn’t the agent has a lot of industry knowledge to help you when you are new to the process. So, here’s the tips I collected from Pikes Peak Writer’s Conference 2021 on pitching and querying.

The Do’s

  • Do your research. Every agent and editor from every company says this same thing, so I’m going to wrap all their opinions into this one point. If you don’t know the name of the person you are querying, find out. If you don’t know what types of books that person represents, find out. If they don’t represent your type of book, find a different person (sending to them is just wasting their time and yours). If you don’t know the submission guidelines for the place you’re submitting, find out and then follow them. Do not send a query which does not follow submission guidelines. It will just end up in the trash.
  • Have a one-line pitch prepared. The more clearly you can present the essence of your story, the more effective your pitch or query will be. This can be in a number of different formats. One of the popular ones is the “[Story A] meets [Story B] but with [twist]” format. These work great if they fit. For my upcoming debut novel, that pitch might be “A Game of Thrones meets The Way of Shadows but with hope.” I don’t love that one (for a number of reasons), but I’m told that it fits so I’m stuck with it. Other formats include a sentence of the style “Character + 2-3 word status quo + 5-6 word conflict” and “Short character description + stakes claim + twist.” Getting these right can be difficult (and is a better subject for an entirely different post), but it’s important to have one that captures the essence of your story. Just remember, they are short.
  • Start your query letter with something eye catching. This is not an invitation to start with “Naked women dance on the moon! Got your attention? Now, about my historical romance novel….” The one-line pitch discussed in the previous point is perfect for this if placed near the top of a query letter. This is a reasonably common way to start a query letter, because the one-liner typically gives a character, a goal, a conflict, and often some form of twist. It also grabs the agent’s attention and gives them something to be interested in while reading the query.
  • Be prepared to talk about your book. The worst situation you will ever find yourself in is to have someone ask “Hey, what’s your book about?” and to realize you can’t explain it in less than three paragraphs. What that person wants is “Oh, I’m writing an epic fantasy with heavy political intrigue about a nobleman trying to keep the peace when his homeland thinks he’s a traitor.” They do not want “Okay, so first I have this guy, he’s kind of complicated because he has magic but everyone thinks that magic isn’t real and he can’t just show them because it’s subtle, but then there’s also this girl, and she’s a thief but she really wanted to be an artist…” You’ve already lost your audience, even if they’d love your book.
  • Expect rejections. Even with the best written story and the best written query, you will pitch to some people who aren’t the right fit for your book. If you’ve narrowed your query pool properly, this means one of two things. If you have a few rejections, you just need to keep trying. If you have a lot of rejections, it might be time to switch up your query letter or take another look at your sample pages.
  • Find as many ways to get direct contact with the person you intend to query as possible—without being creepy. It is a truth that face-to-face pitches have a much higher success rate than cold queries (even virtual ones). Primarily this is because the person you are pitching is already out looking for a new project to take on, but ti also helps that you’re sitting right there. So, if you pitch a book poorly, they may well ask for more information that lets you salvage the pitch. I’ve told the story a couple of times on here about when I pitched to an editor at Del Rey and she said “That’s great, everyone loves elves and dragons, but why do I care about yours?” If I’d had a great comeback that explained what was unique about my book, that would have been a request for pages. But not everyone can afford a conference. So find authors who might be able to give you an in. Jonathan Maberry spent a lot of the pandemic holding monthly educational zoom events with Eric Smith, who is a great agent. Other people may have similar options. And cold queries still account for more than 75% of all new clients that agents accept, so don’t give up. But the more personal you can manage (without finding their home address and taking pictures through their windows), the better off you are.
  • Remember that agents and editors are people. This means a few things. One, it means that if you’re excited about something, they might be too. They’re just people! They have interests just like you and I do. If you get a chance, chat with them. Two, it means they have lives beyond their jobs. You occasionally read a book or go out to eat with a friend (or used to), right? They might want to watch a movie instead of responding to your query right then. They’re only people! Give them a break. Three, it means they might just have a bad (or good) day. If you get a full request and then a couple days later a form rejection, maybe the agent took a look at the full and went “Oh, wow, I guess was feeling lenient that day…” Or maybe the agent took a look at the manuscript and said “Crap, I literally just signed another book like this and I can’t have two at once.” Some days we all look at something and hate it even if it’s fine because we’re just having that kind of day. Don’t take it too personally.

The Do Not’s

  • Be unprofessional. Everyone’s definition of professionalism will vary a bit, but here’s some pointers if you’re unsure. It is unprofessional to start your query, in-person pitch, or other contact with “Hey buddy!” or “I know you aren’t going to accept this because agents are always too picky, but…” or “So this is a book that is just amazing. It’s completely groundbreaking in how well it depicts the lives of…” The first is way too casual, the second is insulting, and the third is building yourself up too much. You want to sound like a businessperson with some personality, not like a surfer-stereotype trying to sell a get rich quick scheme or a self-aggrandizing jerk.
  • Send a physical query letter. There’s a little bit of remaining debate on this one, but 90% or more of agencies and publishing houses don’t accept physical queries at all, anymore. A growing number don’t even accept personal e-mails and instead require you to fill out a form. For non-fiction this may be a slightly more controversial topic (I’ve heard some non-fiction agents still prefer physical query letters), but I live by Jonathan Maberry’s opinion on this one: If the publishing house is so behind the times as to use physical query letters, they’re also behind the times on marketing you and your book. You’ll get better representation from someone who knows how to navigate social media and internet marketing. Especially if you’re someone for whom that is difficult.
  • Respond to a form letter. Typically this recommendation comes from horror stories of agents who send a rejection and then get a nasty email back accusing the agent of everything from lying about the quality of the book to being afraid to publish such genius to wanting to steal the idea. People who send those nasty emails are idiots, and I probably can’t help them. For the rest of us, also don’t reply to the form letter, even if just to send a “thank you for considering my book” note. I’ve done this and it’s not a black-list move or anything, but all it does it take my time and clutter the agent’s inbox.
  • Be creepy. I joked about this in my direct contact point above, but seriously, some people need to learn boundaries. An agent is a professional that you are considering hiring. If you know more about their personal life than their neighbor, you are probably being creepy. Anything they post on social media is fair game, anything in a bio or interview is fair game, and anything they say during a work-related video or workshop is fair game. Beyond that, if you overhear it, pretend you didn’t.

Things to Remember

A couple quick points that I want to address because they are often overlooked when talking about querying. You query your book—or pitch in person—because you want to get accepted by a particular agency or publishing house. But too often we act like them accepting us means we have to do what they say.

You don’t.

An agent is a person that you hire to represent your work. The only reason you’re submitting to them as opposed to picking the right service provider out of a directory is because they work exclusively on commission, and as a result they have to be selective about which projects they take on. Similarly, a publishing house is a business to who you are selling your book in return for them giving you a cut of the money they make off it. They can do literally anything with that book once they buy it (within the terms of their contract). There have even been reports (though unconfirmed and long ago now) of times when publishers purchased books that were too similar to an existing franchise they owned simply to prevent it from becoming big.

I have said before and will say again: I have nothing again traditional publishing. It is the right path for many people. But there are only two real differences between traditional publishing and self-publishing: Who gets to make final decisions and who’s footing the bill for releasing the book.

The point of all that, though, is to emphasize this important point: At some point, if you get good at querying, someone will reject your book and say “I really like this concept, but I’m not sure about X. If you ever do a rewrite that changes that, I’d love to take another look.” If that change fits your vision, then change it and resubmit. If it doesn’t, move on. That agent may be an exceptional agent in general, but they aren’t the one you want to hire for that project.

To Wrap All This Up

Pitching a novel is a complex, frustrating, time consuming process, but it’s a puzzle that can be solved with enough research and, yes, luck. I may sound like a terrible source for this information, given that I’ve decided to go self-publishing, but I wasn’t always on that path. I did all this research, I queried hundreds of agents, I talked to dozens of agents, editors, and writers at conferences about this topic. And only after I started getting good at it did I decide this wasn’t the right path for me. I didn’t choose self-publishing because I couldn’t make this work, and neither should you. In fact, I credit much of the quality of my debut novel and confidence I have in my writing to having gone through this process. My best advice, from my personal experience.

Query agents. If at all possible, find a way to directly pitch one. Once you start getting positive responses from that process, then decide if you want to self-publish.


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To Writer’s Con or Not To Writer’s Con

Pikes Peak Writer’s Conference, Colorado Springs, CO


Every year I try to attend at least one writer’s conference, just to keep in touch with current trends, to meet published and aspiring writers, and to learn new tidbits of information to share with my network. As a result, several of my next few publishing posts will be about things I learned from workshops or collected into a list of tips from this year’s conference. This year—and most years, to be honest—the writer’s conference I attended was Pikes Peak Writers Conference. It’s typically held in Colorado Springs, Colorado, but it was virtual this year for understandable reasons.

Pikes Peak has a great reputation as one of the nicest conferences in the U.S. and they work hard to maintain that status with everything from carefully vetted speakers to an entire class at the beginning of each conference to help newer attendees get their bearings. This means two things about this conference. First, it’s a great place to get started if you’re new to writer’s conferences and not sure how to jump in. Second, it’s not going to have as much advanced material as some of the other conferences around, and as a result some people have found it’s usefulness dwindling as they gain experience in the world of writing and publishing. The real question is this: Is this conference, or any conference, worth your time and money?

Difference Between a Writer’s Conference and a Convention

First, let’s define something. There are two types of in-person (or occasionally virtual) events where you can potentially meet other writers and attend classes that will teach you some things about writing. One is a writer’s conference, typically characterized by exclusively offering educational meetings and sometimes network sessions. Conferences are typically quite expensive, ranging in most cases from $200 to $900 or more, but they have a lot of very important benefits that I’ll list below.

The other type of event where you might meet writers and attend classes is a convention. Many fan-based conventions like Comicon, Gencon, or PopCultureCon (for places where Comicon sued and made the organizer change the name) have workshops for aspiring writers. These are often taught by famous authors, at least in the case of the big name conventions, and are often very, very generalized in content. It’s not that you can’t get great information there. That’s just not the point of the event. The best use of one of these conventions is actually after you’re published, when you can spend some of your time marketing your book to the other attendees, who may be interested in trying a new author out who shows interest in the games, TV shows, or other activities they’re already interested in.

On the bright side, most conventions that offer writing workshops are actually a lot cheaper than many writer’s conferences. Gencon, for example, is one of the biggest gaming conventions in the U.S. and is where I attended several of my earliest writing workshops for the entrance fee of about $100. I learned things from those workshops, but I also spent a decent amount of the time writing in my notebooks instead of listening because the speaker was going over something I already knew.

I never spend time at a genuine writer’s conference writing unless it’s late at night in my hotel room after everyone is asleep. There’s too much else to learn.

Benefits of a Writer’s Conference

Now that we know what a writer’s conference is (and how it differs from the conventions some of us have already been attending), let’s evaluate the benefits. There are a lot of great reasons to attend a writer’s conference. For starters, many of them allow you to schedule a session to pitch your project directly to an agent or editor looking for new clients. This is an opportunity you can’t get elsewhere, but it’s also not the only benefit of a conference. Here’s a list of some great benefits you can get from attending a writer’s conference:

  1. Much higher request rates on one-on-one pitching. This feels a bit like my original comment, but it’s important to understand why this is true. It’s not that a conference is some magical place that puts all agents and editors into the mind-frame to accept manuscripts (although the best ones do feel magical sometimes). What’s actually going on is that the agents and editors who attend conferences are specifically there to find new projects and new clients. That’s why they go. You attend conferences to learn about writing or publishing and to network with other writers. Agents and editors go to conferences to network with other agents and editors for their future publishing deals and to find new clients. As a result, if you walk into a pitch session with a decent pitch and a well-written story, there’s a very high chance you’ll get a request for at least a partial manuscript. You’re one person out of maybe 25-30, and they want to look at multiple people from that list. If you send a decent query letter for a well-written story to an agent’s e-mail, you’re one person in probably a hundred queries they got that day, and they can’t possibly request pages from even one person every day without overloading themselves. It’s just less competition at a conference.
  2. Networking with other writers. Never underestimate the value of having writer friends. They aren’t just people to talk to when you feel bad about your writing or swap critiques with. Brandon Sanderson tells a story in his class at BYU about his first publishing contract. How did it happen? A writer he knew from his old writing class introduced him to an editor at a writer’s conference. I got my first partial request from an editor at a writer’s conference, and at that same conference I can’t even remember how many people I bragged to about my close friend who had a book coming out that year. How many sales did I get her? I don’t know, but it wasn’t zero. And if you decide to self-publish, no one knows more about finding a good editor and cover artist than another self-published author. Writer friends will open doors you didn’t even know existed. This is the single most important part of a writer’s conference.
  3. Learning to be a professional, and to be seen as a professional. This is a hard one, because no one can teach this to you. You just learn it via osmosis from being at a conference and watching people. You’ll sit on a bench and watch an author walk up to an agent and say “Hey, sorry to bother you, but I noticed you said in the last workshop that you were particularly interested in ghost story fantasy novels. I’m so curious about that concept. What specific things about ghost stories interest you?” And next thing you know they’re talking about things and the writer is naturally leading into mentioning that they have a ghost story fantasy, actually, and maybe the agent would like to take a look. And you, the innocent bystander, think how did they do that? The short answer? They researched the agent ahead of time, went to that agent’s workshops, prepared questions related to the agent’s work, and paid attention to what the agent said. And yes, I know that answer isn’t short. Neither is the process of preparing to pitch an agent. But watching that author and talking to authors who know how to do that will teach you what professional image you want and how to create it. Do you want to be a conference presenter? Great! Research a topic and become enough of an expert to justify them giving you a workshop. Do you want to just be a moderator? Conferences always need moderators, and it gives you the chance to schmooze with the agents and editors, which is a different kind of professional look. Pick what you want to be and use the conference to help build it.
  4. Some small amount of feedback on writing. It is relatively common for writer’s conferences to have a type of session that is a genuine writing workshop. In these, attendees submit some writing before the session and a panel of publishing professionals (or sometimes just one professional) gives some feedback on the writing. This isn’t your entire book—often it’s only the first 16 lines or sometimes the first couple pages—but just hearing how a professional views the writing can be of immense help.
  5. Some useful information. There is some great information in the workshops at writer’s conferences. Experienced authors talking about their process, and the complications they always face every time they try something new even in a genre they’re comfortable in. Experts giving lectures on the career they worked in for decades that you can apply to your project. Pikes Peak Writer’s Conference has had a coroner and infectious disease expert give a talk about the process and stages and ways of dying. At another conference they had an FBI profiler give a talk about how that profession actually works. Spoilers—Criminal Minds isn’t realistic. It’s all great information. And it’s also pretty much all on YouTube. Don’t get me wrong. There are some topics it’s better to sit in a lecture with a professional and study, but for the most part conferences don’t tell you anything you can’t eventually find somewhere else for free. Often on Brandon Sanderson’s YouTube channel. As a quick aside, I recommend Sanderson above other authortubers primarily because established authors are, in the vast majority of cases, better at telling other writers how to apply processes without criticizing different styles. Sanderson is a heavy outliner who has massive respect for discovery writers. Most heavy outliners on YouTube will tell you discovery writing is less effective, only for inexperienced writers, or simply not viable at all. Sanderson may tell you about his process, but he’ll never tell you his process is inherently better than yours.

Writer’s Conference Disadvantages

As much as I love writer’s conferences, they aren’t all sunshine and roses and for some people it’s a terrible idea to attend them. The first reason why is not going to surprise anyone. They are expensive. I said above that conferences can cost between $200 and $900 or more. That’s slightly inaccurate. I have researched a number of conferences all over the United States and I ahve only found one conference that is regularly less than $400. It’s a conference in Reno, Nevada that lasts a day and a half, costs about $150 just to get in, and an extra $25-$50 per appointment if you want to pitch any editors or agents or get any feedback on your writing. So, at the Reno conference I could pay $150 entrance fee, $50 to pitch one agent, another $50 to get some feedback on my first page, and only spend a day and a half at the entire event for that $250. At Pikes Peak Writer’s Conference I get all of Friday, all of Saturday, and typically 2/3 of Sunday filled with classes and networking, plus I can pitch as many agents or editor’s as appointments the conference has to spare and get feedback on my writing all in the base price of $450-ish. If I can afford the latter, it’s just a better deal. But even Pikes Peak Writer’s Conference is a relatively cheap conference. The San Francisco conference is regularly around $900, the couple in Utah are around $600 last I checked. Writer’s services are good business.

Money isn’t the only disadvantage, either. Some people have social anxiety. Imagine being someone who struggles with large crowds and doesn’t read social cues well spending three days at a conference hotel packed with strangers all trying to walk up to random people and make friends. Some people know most of the information from the workshops and already have an agent. That knocks out three and a half of my points above, because that person has an agent if they need feedback on their writing, they already know writers, they already know the information, and they’ve clearly made some good progress on the professionalism front. Maybe they could pitch to an editor they’re hoping to snag for a future project, but they don’t need to. They have an agent for that.

And the last disadvantage is one I can’t stress enough. If you aren’t experienced enough in writing, then a conference is just wasting your money. If you’re thinking about writing a book, then start writing and do some YouTube research before you go to conference. If you have a critique group that’s telling you all your work is really heavy on telling and not feeling unique, don’t go pitch that novel to an editor at Del Rey who’ll have to look at you and ask “Okay, but why do I care?” I definitely did that, and while I learned a lot at that conference, I also wasted the money I spent going there. I didn’t know how to use the conference right.

This is my point. Conference is a tool and you have to be able to use it properly in order for it to do you any good. Don’t pull out your power saw before you know what you’re building.


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Finding Purchase


“Where do you think you’re going, Brayden?”

His father’s sharp words stopped Brayden Skianda in his tracks, a handful of folded clothes hanging from his frozen fingers. The goldenwood paneled walls of his room shone in the late morning light, marking every inch of the life he’d known since he grew out of boyhood and into the Heir’s Suite of his father’s home. Luxurious bed, chest and armoire for clothing matched by a writing desk under the window and a carved framing on the fireplace. Brayden turned to meet his father’s blue eyes, lifting his chin in defiance.

“My prince has gone to war, Father,” he said. “I can hardly let him travel alone.”

“Don’t be a fool. We don’t even know for certain that’s where he’s gone.”

Brayden scoffed at the suggestion, one hand clenching in the soft fabric of his travel breeches. “And where else would he be? His guard says he’s left. The headsman admitted suggesting a noble-born lad head north the same night Arkaen vanished. He’s gone to war and he needs his lords beside him.”

Brayden’s father crossed the room to stand by the window, his heavy robes of office seeming to weigh his shoulders down with the responsibility. First adviser to High Lord Johannus should be an honor. Instead it was a burden Brayden wasn’t sure his father could bear. High Lord Johannus spent little enough time listening to his lower lords, anyway. At those not in league with the high lord’s childhood friend, Baron Oskari Weydert.

“I respect your honor, lad.” His father waved a hand as if to dismiss Brayden’s intentions and turned back to the room. “But we both know you’re no great talent with that blade. Run off after lordling Arkaen and all we’ll have is another noble’s heir dead.”

“So I should let him die?” Brayden threw the clothes onto his bed, frustration bubbling into the back of his throat. “Arkaen trained under my weapons master. Dined with us two nights out of five near every week. I grew up with him, I called him a friend, and I know him. He didn’t abandon our province for something trivial.”

“He was set for an arranged marriage. Wouldn’t be the first to run from a woman he didn’t want.”

Brayden shook his head, slamming a hand into the tall post of his bed frame. All evidence pointed toward his father being right. Arkaen had been seen sulking around the palace for days before vanishing, and High Lord Johannus had planned a marriage to a girl Arkaen probably didn’t want to wed. His personal guard even agreed he’d run off to avoid the wedding. But that wasn’t everything. Brayden could feel it in a certainty that ran through his blood. There was more to the story.

“He wouldn’t leave Lady Saylina like that,” Brayden said. “She’s just a child. Not nearly ready for the political mess this will throw her in the middle of.”

“As you intend to leave Arianne? Is your sister ready to manage the politics of becoming heir?”

“That’s not a proper comparison and you know it,” he said. “Arianne is a year and a half my senior and has been preparing to run her husband’s household for years. Lady Saylina is nine.”

Brayden frowned, staring out the window at the bustle of the city. Common-born dragging their goods to a market that had long forgotten their value. High Lord Johannus spent too much time with imperial sycophants to realize the brewing tension in his own city. Arkaen had known. Arkaen had cared about the lower classes and now he was gone. Only the gods could guess what might happen to the city, or the province, while Arkaen hunted his own goals among the horrors of war.

“Brayden, you know this can’t be,” his father said. “Arianne has been training as a lower lord’s wife. You are heir to one of the most prestigious households in the province. When I’m gone, you’ll have the high lord’s ear. She has no knowledge of how to navigate that.”

“Then train her! Father, I—”

“I’m going home, Brayden. Tomorrow.”

“What?”

The words hit him like a shock of cold water. Leave court right now? But everyone would, he realized. Summer court was coming to an end, which meant the landed lords would need to return to their own holdings to manage the estates. The horse stock of the Tenison estate needed constant care, the two lake lords would be back to fighting over who held what part of the fish and oil trade. Even his own family’s wooded estate couldn’t be left alone forever.

“Can’t the steward see to it another year?” Brayden asked. “You know what will happen if we leave. High Lord Johannus is far too volatile to be left alone with only the unlanded lords as counsel.”

“Which is precisely why I need you to stay,” his father replied. “I doubt he’ll listen to a word you say. Likely he’ll take one look at you and see his boy. But at least you can monitor the discussions and warn me before he puts us into the war.”

Brayden bit at the inside of his lip, thinking. “Would that be so bad?” He waved a hand before his father could protest. “I know. War is ugly and thousands of innocents will die. But the emperor is sending his armies north. Innocents will die either way. Shouldn’t we at least try to protect them?”

“You assume High Lord Johannus would fight for the Serr-Nyen.” Brayden’s father shook his head. “Johannus is too smart for that. He might mourn their deaths, but he’d never risk our province’s limited soldiers protecting a foreign people. His family is loyal to Emperor Laisia for a reason.”

“Even High Lord Johannus can’t ignore this.” Brayden shoved away from the bed, scowling. “It’s a genocide. If Emperor Laisia could kill everyone north of the Sentar border he would. Arkaen knew that. He—”

“You think he went to save them,” his father said. “Maybe he did. But we need to save our own people.”

Anger chafed at Brayden’s thoughts. But his father was right. Emperor Laisia’s wrath might be targeted at his newly conquered province right now, but imperial whims were fickle. If the emperor learned the heir to Sentar had left under rumors he planned to join the rebellion against imperial rule, Sentar could become the next target. A closer, less protected target with a populace proud of its position within the Laisian Empire. The Sentarsi nobility would be wiped out and no one would fight for them.

“So what do you need?” Brayden’s words sounded flat even to himself. Defeated by an enemy who hadn’t even raised a hand yet.

“The princess.” Brayden’s father waved toward the palace. “She needs supervision from a source with the province’s interests at heart. You can guide her.”

Brayden frowned, disgust souring his thoughts as he considered his options. “I’ll try, but the high lord isn’t prone to letting full-grown men with political ambitions court his nine year old daughter. And I certainly hope you’ve no intentions for me to do so in earnest.”

Brayden’s father burst out in a hearty chuckle, the sound cutting enough to reveal the absurdity of the assumption. Beyond the wide gap in their age, the marriage would never work politically. A count’s heir wed to the high lord’s daughter would cause more problem than anyone could want.

“Gods above, no, lad.” His father coughed on another chuckle and smiled. “There are so many better ways to influence a child. And besides, she’s not even had her first woman’s moon. You’ll be well settled before her marriage is designed. I only meant to keep watch on her, provide outlets for her rather expansive imagination.” Brayden’s father turned serious again, fixing a stern look at Brayden. “Outlets which encourage her down the paths best for our province. A cautious and well educated high lady is essential to our survival. Especially now that we can’t rely on Arkaen.”

“He’ll—” Brayden bit back a curse, his instincts screaming to defend Arkaen. But what Arkaen did or did not intend mattered nothing to Brayden’s next steps. And if Arkaen had taken the time, he’d have asked someone to look after Lady Saylina, anyway. “I’ll see to it. Offer a servant to watch and guide her, perhaps. Her father will want a spy like he had on Arkaen.”

“Perfect.” Brayden’s father crossed the room, pausing by the door. “Fare well. I’ll be at the city gates before you rise in the morn. And be careful. The city isn’t what it used to be.”


Brayden kept a careful eye on the side alleys as he strode through the city, a young girl scurrying in his wake. With any luck, his key into the young princess’s circle of trust. Dusk hung over the city, lanterns just beginning to shine on the larger, wealthier streets and the shadows filling with pleading eyes and outstretched hands. The girl behind him shied away from the beggars, as if afraid proximity would drag her back into their place.

“Come along, Caela,” Brayden muttered over his shoulder. “High Lord Johannus can’t select you if we miss the ceremony and I didn’t pluck you from the streets to add another child to my own household.”

He regretted the words the instant he said them. Impress the high lord or I throw you back on the streets. He hadn’t intended to threaten the child, though he couldn’t see another way to interpret his statement. And by the glare she shot him, Caela had already taken his measure from that threat. Nothing he said now would convince her of anything more than his own guilt over a callous verbal misstep. Still…

“I meant—”

“I ken tell.” Caela hurried to keep pace with him, her shorter legs pumping almost twice as fast to match his longer stride. “Ya ain’t got place fer me. None a ya do.”

“That’s—” Brayden sighed. “I hired you for a reason. That’s all I meant.”

With a careless shrug, she turned the next corner without waiting for him to lead. Not her first time slipping onto the high lord’s estate, then. Gods help him if any of High Lord Johannus’s guards knew her from those previous visits.

The houses here were larger, many sporting multiple small plots for various styles of gardens. Miniature attempts to recreate a proper lord’s estate. A few even had stone walls mimicking the defensive structure of the high lord’s palace, complete with iron gates barred from the inside. The rich merchants, hoping that enough showy wealth would turn them into lords in their own right. Under the increasingly fickle Emperor Laisia, they might just be right.

Brayden stepped in front of Caela as they turned the final bend toward the high lord’s palace, waving her back into his shadow. The gate guard looked up, raised a hand to halt them, and froze when he recognized Brayden. A smile spread across the guard’s face. Brayden pulled a copper coin, new-minted with the face of Emperor Laisia’s insignia and named for his house, to ease the guard’s conscience. The guard pushed the gate open and waved Brayden inside, shooting a silent glare at Caela edging in behind him.

The courtyard beyond was lit with dozens of lanterns. An flagrant waste of oil that even most of the lower lords wouldn’t have allowed. So much easier to hold the event in the day and save the cost, though High Lord Johannus must be ashamed of the need. Probably scheduled late in the day to avoid the chance his daughter would sneak out and offer her own opinion. Even at her young age, Lady Saylina had a tendency to object when the high lord stole her choices. A voice rang across the courtyard as Brayden approached, leading his young candidate.

“My lord, surely you’ve more to attend than your daughter’s personal servants.” Viscount Andriole stepped forward. Likely protecting his own daughter, who had just come of age to wed and stood now milling amongst the collection of young women the high lord was examining. “Our high lady is still a child. Far too young to hold a true court.”

“Don’t be a fool,” High Lord Johannus said. “I don’t want her to hold court. I want to know what she’s up to. If I’d gotten to Arkie sooner I’d have him still home.”

Brayden smiled at the opportunity, stepping forward. Before he could speak, another young man stumbled into the courtyard. Two stone-faced guards stalked behind him and Brayden’s blood turned to ice. Executioners, and the man was the personal guard High Lord Johannus had hired for Arkaen.

“My lord Johannus.” Brayden waved at Arkaen’s guard. “For what purpose have you brought your son’s guard? Sure he cannot inform this decision.”

High Lord Johannus smirked. “He already has, young lordling.” A casual glance at the guards and he turned back to the women, calling an order over his shoulder. “See to it.”

Brayden glanced at Caela, wishing, suddenly, that he’d studied the request more before choosing an innocent child for his ploy. The guards stripped Arkaen’s former companion of his shirt and shoved him to his knees.

“My lord,” the man pleaded. “I did what you asked. I begged him to stay. What more could I have done?”

The first crack of the whip echoed through the courtyard. The scream followed, torn from the man’s shocked throat. As if he’d never truly believed the whipping was real. A second crack. The next scream vibrated with fear.

“This is not the lord I serve!” Brayden sprinted across the distance, grabbing High Lord Johannus’s arm. And froze with a third guard’s knife at his throat, the high lord’s sleeve pulled from his grasp.

“You’ll want to watch your tongue, boy.” High Lord Johannus waved the guard back, releasing Brayden. “Your father has my respect. You are expendable.”

A fourth scream, emotion fading into pain.

“What did you expect him to do?” Brayden demanded. “Lock Arkaen, his sworn lord, in chains?”

“He knows what was expected.”

A fifth scream, and then a sixth. The humanity was starting to fade. Brayden trembled under the fury of high Lord Johannus’s glare. Arkaen hadn’t run for any trivial reason. Not to avoid a woman he didn’t care for. He’d run to escape a monster he didn’t dare challenge.

A brush of soft cloth against Brayden’s arm and Caela stepped up to the high lord. She glanced at the man—at her likely end—and scoffed.

“Ya shouldn’ta called a high-born ta do a gutter-rat’s job.”

“Caela—”

“Shut it, lord’s boy.” Her callous dismissal felt false. Not a proper insult, just enough to prove her guts without offending him. A ploy. “Ya ain’t got nothin’ fer me anyhow.”

High Lord Johannus choked on a laugh, a brutal counterpoint to the whimpering of Arkaen’s former guard. The tension vibrated, strung tighter with each strike of the whip. Gods, they were going to kill the man for not forcing Arkaen to bow to his father’s will. And High Lord Johannus knew it. He didn’t even spare a glance for the man he’d hired to watch his son.

“What possible purpose could you serve, girl?”

“I know what ya ain’t thought to look fer,” Caela replied. “Yer boy? He ain’t run off random. Wasn’t gonna leave. Ole Jaki sent him off, realized too late, told tha guards. By then, what they gonna do? I ken keep her here. Keep her handled.”

“And I’m supposed to trust your word?” High Lord Johannus asked. “You’ve just admitted to being a thief.”

“Ain’t—”

“I’ll vouch for her,” Brayden said.

The words sat heavy in his gut, but she’d made the move now. All he could do was what he’d promised. Speak for her, help her as he could, and offer her a retreat if needed. Not that he could do much if Lady Saylina disappointed her father as Arkaen had.

Brayden laid a hand on Caela’s shoulder. “I brought her for this purpose. She’s smart and she’s loyal to our province.”

Or she’d sworn to be and he had no choice but to believe her now. High Lord Johannus frowned at the girl for a moment, then finally nodded.

“Fine,” he said. “Send her to the palace in the morn. And teach her to speak properly. I want none of that gutter-speak in my home.”

High Lord Johannus strode into his keep, leaving the rest of the lords alone with the continuing screams of Arkaen’s guard.


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Character Brainstorming Tricks

Ever get stuck trying to flesh a character out and decide to use writing prompts to get some context? Prompts are a great way to flesh out bits of a character you don’t always think about. But if you’re like me, you write fantasy, and basically all writing prompts and character exercises are about contemporary worlds. Here’s a few designed to help you build more rounded characters in fantasy worlds. Several of these can be used in contemporary worlds, as well, with minor tweaking.

1. Your character is standing at the edge of a battlefield.

What do they feel? Why are they there? What do they do when confronted with the sight? Write two paragraphs explaining their emotional reactions, their goals, and their actions, including at least some explanation of why this battlefield matters to them (i.e., maybe it’s an old battle where a family member died, or a recent battle they fought in, or a recent battle they didn’t fight in but are now stealing from the dead bodies of).

2. Your character comes face to face with a creature they thought was a myth.

How do they react to this strange creature? Do they call it by the mythical name, or assume their myth is false and try to investigate? Do they run, think they’re dreaming, or try to reassess their world view? Write two paragraphs explaining their experience, and in the process, give some sense of what the creature is they have come across.

3. Have your character describe something they have always wanted but never been able to have.

This can be something they can’t afford, something they have only ever heard of from travelers, something in myths and tales, or a social connection they don’t have (i.e., lover, lost parents, sibling). Make sure they don’t use descriptions they wouldn’t know (a farmer in a humid climate with low technology would have no idea what a forest fire is) and try to capture their worldview in the description.

4. Your character is hungry.

How do they get food? Do they have food on hand, and what type of food do they get? Do they have to ask someone to get them food? Do they have to go work in order to afford food? Make sure that your description includes their opinion of their status in regards to others around them, as well as how commonly they perform the steps you describe.

5. Write a conversation between your character and someone with a different world view.

The conversation can be about anything that is not their world view differences (i.e., their children, the weather, the looming prospect of war). Try to illustrate the differences in world view without directly stating them.

6. Your character has a meeting that is finally going to get them something they have always wanted or needed, but a family member gets into trouble and needs help at the same time.

Does your character go to their meeting, or help their family? Who is their family member, and how does your character feel about them in general? Write at least two paragraphs describing the decision and your character’s reactions to it.

7. Your character is visiting a new location.

Describe how they evaluate the visit. Do they notice architecture or social differences? Signs of wealth or opportunities for exploration? Write a short scene in which the only action is the character walking through this new location. Use their reactions and observations to reveal what about the location interests them.

8. What myths, legends, religions, or traditions does your character believe in?

Write at least two paragraphs outlining their views on myths, religions, and other traditions, spiritual or otherwise.

9. Your character’s closest friend or family member moves away, or, alternatively, they move away from their closest friends and family.

What does your character attempt to do on their first day without their usual support group? Write a short scene in which your character goes through their day without the people they usually rely on. Make sure they face at least one challenge they would usually go to their friends or family for help with and decide how they resolve the situation now that they don’t have that support.

10. Your character encounters someone less fortunate than they are.

Do they attempt to help the person, or leave them alone? If they try to help, in what way do they help? Write a short scene in which your character talks to someone who has suffered worse than your character and describe how your characters feels, what they do, and how they view their interaction with this person.

Managing Reader Feedback

So you’ve written your first draft, gone through editing and cleaned up all the side tracks that didn’t go anywhere or got abandoned or just felt weird, and you have a solid, reader-ready copy of your book. You open up your advice source of choice and it says “get reader feedback” or sometimes “get critique partners” or occasionally “get beta readers.” It always fascinates me that there are sources that tell you to get beta readers after finishing your first round of self-edits. This is a terrible idea. Let me explain why.

What is a beta reader?

I suspect that the main reason for the erroneous suggestion above is a misunderstanding of what beta readers really are. In short, beta readers are readers. They’re not going to tell you how to improve the line-level writing of the book and they aren’t going to suggest improvements to your concept or ask if a particular character is necessary for the book because they’re only in a couple scenes. Their job is to read the book as if it was published and point out things that would make them either really excited for your book (i.e., oh wow, I never saw that plot twist coming. That’s really cool!) or consider putting your book down (i.e., um, sorry, but the chapter where the character goes to history class is not working for me. It was super boring.). Your job is to take the knowledge of what did work and what didn’t work for each of the readers and decide what changes, if any, need to be made.

This probably sounds like I’m arguing against myself—after all, don’t you want to know what works and what doesn’t for your next round of edits—but this is actually all bad for the first reader feedback stage. For the first stage you need someone who can suggest solutions and who is trained to look past the poorly implemented writing to see the idea behind and help bring that to life. You need a critique partner, and preferably more than one.

How is a critique partner different from a beta reader?

The most important difference between a critique partner and a beta reader is that a critique partner is expected to suggest solutions to issues, while a beta reader is only expected to point those problems out. There are other differences, largely in the complexity of the concern presentation but also in the stretch-scope of the role.

So, for example, a beta reader might tell you “this section didn’t hold my interest.” They might even say “the characters here didn’t feel natural and I wasn’t interested in their decisions.” That’s all great information and can inform your next decisions. But a critique partner would say “The characters here didn’t feel natural. Remember how MC reacted to a similar situation in chapter 3? They got really angry and glared, brooded about the issues for a week, then plotted a major assassination. Here MC has a very similar thing and just starts yelling and hacking at people. That doesn’t fit the character.” In early stages of editing, you need the more in depth discussion to decide which of those actions is more like your character so you can harmonize the character reactions. Obviously this is a pretty simplistic example—if you have this wide a disparity between responses you should probably have a strong character arc leading from one to the other, not an “oops, mis-remembered that” situation—but the point holds. A beta reader is a reader who will tell you what they enjoyed reading and what they disliked. A critique partner is a partner who will evaluate the manuscript to discuss elements that work or don’t and why they work or don’t. Let’s look at a few examples of how the feedback will differ:

Type of error/issueTypical Beta Reader responseTypical Critique Partner response
Minor grammatical issues (I.e., missing punctuation or incorrect verb tense)Two common responses:

1. If prevalent throughout, will likely note that “grammar issues made the read difficult to engage with”

2. If rare, will likely not say anything
Will usually highlight the issues, and depending on the prevalence (and their personal preference) may explain the rule that makes the error an issue
Character personality changes mid book without warningWill usually say the characters don’t make sense or seemed to be poorly developedWill usually discuss the altered personality from one scene to the next, pointing out how and why it is inconsistent and may even suggest changes to keep the character consistent
Plot doesn’t make senseWill usually say that they were confused and/or couldn’t follow the action of the bookWill usually point out plot holes, missing explanations, and/or make suggestions for how to bridge the gaps while maintaining the intent of the book
Setting is weak and/or confusingMay ask for world details, or may say that they had trouble visualizing the settingWill usually suggest places in the text where setting details can be added, possibly even referencing types of senses commonly excluded and how they could add depth at given moments
Too much information or information given in an inappropriate locationWill usually say the book got boring, slow, or confusing at the specific locationWill usually drop the dreaded “don’t infodump” warning, possibly tell you not to spout your entire backstory in one long rant, and have surprisingly little advice on how to rectify the issue beyond “cut some of this”

Now you may look at the list above and think “but why would I ever use a beta reader? Critique partners are better in every way, right?” Well, no. But this is exactly why I said a beta reader right out of self-editing is a terrible idea. Beta readers serve a very specific purpose, and it’s not the same purpose as critique partners. Beta readers are like beta testers for a video game—their primary purpose is to tell you if the story is interesting from an outside perspective. The more rough edges the work has, the more likely they are to tell you the book sucks even if they would actually like the finished product.

A critique partner, on the other hand, is more like the quality analysis department of the video game company. They probably like the book—they’ll do a better job if they do, in fact—but their job is to help smooth out the rough edges and bring the book to it’s greatest potential. A critique partner should never tell you a book isn’t good enough, interesting enough, or doesn’t have enough potential to be worth your time. The worst a critique partner should ever say is “the concept might work, but this presentation doesn’t so you might want to try re-evaluating the way you approach this concept.” Any critique partner who tells you to give up—whether on a specific book or on writing in general—should be immediately removed from your pool of critique partners. A beta reader, however, is perfectly within their rights to tell you a particular book doesn’t seem marketable.

So how do I know what feedback I need?

This question has a pretty fluid range of answers, and only you can know what stage you’re at, but here’s a few guidelines to help. Typically a critique partner is early in the process—in some cases even before you finish a draft, depending on your process. Critique partners help you refine elements of your story, improve your writing skill, and catch major flaws in style and presentation before they permeate the entire book. Beta readers are later in the process and give you a taste of what readers will think after you publish. They may find plot holes or inconsistent characters, but primarily they are to tell you whether or not the book is interesting to read. Beta readers are particularly good at helping you locate places where readers are likely to misunderstand what you wrote in unusual or unexpected ways.

As a rule of thumb, if you just finished a self-edit or are looking for ways to solve known problems, find a critique partner. If you think the book might be ready for publication but are unsure how it will be received, find a beta reader.

What if someone asks me to read for them?

Just about every writer is asked, at one point or another, to read someone else’s work and offer feedback. There’s only one piece of advice I can give for this situation Try, to the best of your ability, to pretend like you aren’t a writer.

The thing about writers is that every time they hear an idea they start thinking about how they would implement that idea. But when you’re reading someone else’s work, what you would do doesn’t matter. All that matters is how this writer was trying to accomplish the idea, and how well they actually did. So, pretend you aren’t a writer, try to figure out what the writer is hoping to present, and suggest toward that goal.

This works whether you’re asked to beta read or to be a critique partner. As a beta reader, your job isn’t to be a writer anyway. You should be focusing on whether you would pick the book up for yourself. As a critique partner, your job is to nurture the story the writer is trying to create. To do that, you need to set aside your own interests and writing style and evaluate what the writer wanted to make.

I can tell you from experience in four different writer’s groups all around the United States that this skill is extremely rare. I was often hailed as the best of the group at giving a critique because people thought I saw into what they were trying to do. I rarely knew for sure what the goal was and I was often wrong in my suggestions. But what I did do was try to match the image the writer was creating rather than mold the story into the image I would have created in their place. One of my closest friends in one of these groups almost convinced me to turn my epic fantasy series into a romance because she was most interested in the romantic subplot. She wasn’t malicious (in fact I genuinely valued her feedback), she just thought that thread of the story was most interesting and so she pushed me to develop it until I was having trouble finding the rest of the story. If someone wants you to read for them, don’t be that well-intentioned usurper who derails the entire story because you’re thinking about what you would have written.

Practice finding the thread the writer is trying to create and help nurture it. And look for critique partners who will do the same.


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All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

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Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

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For some original fiction, check out these posts:
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